Of disasters, man-made and natural

Disasters are many and varied. However, there are principally two types that are prevalent nowadays. They are natural and man-made disasters. Hardly a day passes without disaster striking some part of the globe. Global warming had resulted in a series of natural disasters and destructive weather patterns,

Sri Lanka was considered to be located in an exceptionally favourable location out of danger. As a popular song says there are no earthquakes and volcanic actions in Sri Lanka. However, things do not look too bright for our future as signs of danger are already apparent. Of late our country has also experienced a series of disasters.

Beginning with the tsunami of December 2004 there has been a series of severe floods, landslides with much destruction of life and property etc. We could recall the Aranayake and Badulla landslides, the Salawa Army Camp explosion and now the exploitation at the Meetotamulla garbage heap. Were they natural disasters or man-made disasters? Though they appeared to be natural, it was undoubtedly a result of man’s interference with the environment or his destruction of it. Nature has a tendency to react violently to man’s cruelty to it.

Since disasters could be more frequent in the days ahead it is necessary to have a good knowledge about disasters, their causes and preventive measures. Yet Sri Lankans seem to be hardly knowledgeable on such matters and both the rulers and the administrators do not seem to give it due consideration.

Tsunami disaster

Incidentally it would be interesting to recall an incident that happened at the time of the tsunami disaster of December 2004. When the earthquake that triggered the tsunami took place the United States Pacific Tsunami Warning Station contacted our Foreign Ministry in Colombo and warned about it. Being a holiday only a minor servant had answered the call but he was ignorant of the phenomenon of tsunami so that he did not act on the message received. The authorities ignored it even after the local and international media reported the incident. The cost paid was enormous- about 40,000 dead.

To take matters worse even the Pallekele station – the only one that was working at the time -monitoring seismic activity was closed on that day as it was a public holiday. The Minister in charge then was Dr. Tissa Vitharana, who strangely enough justified the closure instead of acknowledging the lapse of duty. It was as if disasters too take holidays seriously!

Since the frequency of disasters seems to have increased, it is necessary to keep the public well aware of their nature and repercussions. Perhaps it would be best to include disaster management to the school curriculum to equip the future generations with the ability to face them knowledgeably.

Perusing the media subsequent to the Meetotamulla disaster one gets sick of attempts of politicians and administrators to blame one another for it, instead of pooling their resources to find a quick and long-lasting solution to guarantee a non-repetition of similar disasters. It is futile to blame the present or last government as both as well as even earlier governments are responsible for the neglect and indifference shown towards the garbage disposal problem by all of them. Those who wax eloquent now on solutions were also waxing eloquent post the tsunami and numerous devastating floods that occurred earlier. However, most of the proposals they put up for show then never materialized. In the midst of the tragedy a Minister is repeatedly blaming the people for their protest demonstrations against the garbage heap. He has obviously forgotten that people do not protest for fun and are only exercising a basic right of theirs.

Game of power politics

The blame game and the myriad of proposals are all part of the game of power politics. Most such actions are carried out with a view of future elections and the grandiose projects are forgotten once popular interest wanes. Long after the disasters at Aranayake, Salawa and elsewhere, some victims are still suffering without proper redress. There is hardly a calling of conscience or duty by the country and the people. As a rule it is the poor who are worst affected by disasters. The dearth of pro-poor policies in governance is conspicuous.

At the time of the Salawa explosion, the government blamed the former regime for installing an Army Camp with an ammunition depot in a densely populated area while the former regime insisted that they had a plan to re-locate it elsewhere but the change of government prevented it. Yet nearly a year after the incident the Army Camp is yet to be re-located. Apparently there is no political will or it is beyond the list of priorities.

Both the government and the public seem to be more obsessed with cosmetic projects of city beautification than giving priority to avert man-made disasters such as that of Meetotamulla. Otherwise they would not have waited till the problem developed to colossal proportions. Another cause is the mentality to go for mega projects, to undertake the largest constructions in Asia if not in the world. The garbage problem could have been and must be solved in parallel at local government or district level. The craze for mega projects retards progress, especially in view of the shortage of investments.

Unscientific exploitation of natural resources and the destruction of bio-diversity due to the greed for profit should be stopped. Development should not come at a cost to be paid in disasters. The lowering of the water table due to excessive digging of tube wells, unrestricted import of foreign flora for commercial purposes, excessive sand mining in rivers, unscientific and destructive fishing practices, excessive use of chemical fertilizers etc. have given rise to many health hazards and potential disasters. It would be also unfair to blame only politicians as administrative bodies and officials and law-enforcement agencies are also responsible for the preservation of natural resources and prevention of their undue exploitation. Undoubtedly we are yet far away from good governance.

On the other hand, how could there be good governance when there are no national policies with respect to almost all spheres of social human activity? 

 


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